Thursday, August 4, 2022

Scholastic book: "27 Cats Next Door" (aka I feel seen)

When I was scanning my shelves looking for something to write about it, this one jumped out at me. Gee, I wonder why. When I originally placed this book on the shelf, we only had four cats. Now there are 17 cats in the house and three additional outdoor cats that we take care of. (Indeed, I had to pause while writing this to feed Big Boi.) We are frighteningly close to being the "next door people" in the title of this book.  
  • Title: 27 Cats Next Door
  • Author: Anita Feagles. Her name is misspelled as Anita Fleagles on the cover. Her full name is Anita Marie MacRae Feagles, and her other books included Casey: The Utterly Impossible Horse; The Tooth Fairy; He Who Saw Everything: The Epic of Gilgamesh; Queen Sara and the Messy Fairies; The Year the Dreams Came Back; and The Monster, Mr. Nelson.
  • Illustrator: Barron Storey. Interestingly, his name is misspelled too, being listed as Baron Storey on the title page. Storey mentions 27 Cats Next Door briefly in this 2014 interview with Aaron Silverberg about his career and artistic style.
  • Publisher: Scholastic Book Services (TW 881)
  • Year: 1966
  • Pages: 64
  • Format: Paperback
  • Chapter titles: Too Many Cats Next Door; A Cat Named Philip Rogers; And Twenty-Six Others, More or Less; The Cat That Tripped Mrs. Bolton; A Petition Against Cats; A Secret Plan; How It Feels to Be Without Friends; Still Too Many Cats; A Home for a Kitten.
  • First sentence: "Moving to a new town wasn't nearly as bad a Jim had expected."
  • Last sentence: "And he was right."

This isn't really a happy book. It's mostly sad. The teenager, Jim, discovers that his neighbor, Mrs. Ames, is essentially a cat hoarder. And that's not really a socially acceptable thing, then or now. Most people consider it weird, at best, and a public health nuisance, at worst. Mrs. Ames doesn't have any friends or help with her collection of cats and, while Jim admirably tries to assist her, he's quickly in over his head, too. They two of them can only try their best.

They don't even have the resources that might be available today to keep a stray cat colony from spiraling further out of control. Trap–neuter–return (TNR) programs weren't widespread in the United States at that point. Euthanasia at the SPCA was the only practical solution, and neither Mrs. Ames nor Jim want to see that happen.

Here's a passage from early in the book:
Jim wished he could tell Mrs. Ames that if she had fewer cats, people wouldn't say mean things about her. He said, "Maybe it would be better if you didn't have so many. If you gave them all away except for, say, three, maybe it would ... well, maybe it would be better." 

Mrs. Ames gave him a funny look. "People have been telling me that for years. But nobody will take care of them if I don't. Of course everyone thinks I'm very strange because I don't like to see animals die. I probably am."
A few pages later, Jim and his less-than-understanding father have this conversation:
"How do they kill them?" Jim asked.

"They put them in a gas chamber. They feel no pain at all. There are too many cats in the world, Jim, and some people turn them loose to starve to death. Some people drown them. Is that kinder than putting them in a gas chamber?"

"In school we're learning that pretty soon there will be too many people in the world," Jim said. "Are we going to put them in a gas chamber too?"

"Oh, come now," his father said. "People are more important than cats."

"Not to Mrs. Ames," Jim said.
In her 2008 mini-review of 27 Cats Next Door on GoodreadsKrista the Krazy Kataloguer sums up the book's big issue succinctly: "Sometimes there are no easy solutions to problems!"

That's true. But I'm fully on Team Mr. Ames. In 2022, we seem to be surrounded by overwhelming problems that no one person or family can possibly tackle: global warming, war and genocide, gun violence, gaslighting of the public to undermine any number of truths. If, to counter all this stress, we choose to put some of our finite energy and compassion toward helping cats, or any other animals, I think that's a noble use of our time here on Earth.

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